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Chemical weapons watchdog wins Nobel

The OPCW, an obscure body recently thrust into the spotlight by the Syria crisis, has won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to rid the world of chemical weapons.

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The UN-backed Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was honoured on Friday “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons,” Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said in announcing the surprise choice.

“Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons,” the Norwegian jury said in its statement.

The chemical watchdog was not considered among the frontrunners for the prize until the eve of the announcement.

Teenage Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege had been among the favourites for this year’s prize.

This marks the second consecutive year an organisation has won the prestigious award. Last year’s award went to the European Union.

The Hague-based OPCW was founded in 1997 to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention signed on January 13, 1993.

Until recently operating in relative obscurity, the OPCW has suddenly been catapulted into the global spotlight because of its work supervising the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal and facilities.

This has to be completed by mid-2014 under the terms of a UN Security Council resolution.

A team of around 30 OPCW arms experts and UN logistics and security personnel are on the ground in Syria and have started to destroy weapons production facilities.

The OPCW said on Tuesday it was sending a second wave of inspectors to bolster the disarmament mission in the war-ravaged nation.

The Rights Livelihood Foundation, a Swedish NGO that recently awarded a prize to chemical weapons expert Paul Walker, hailed the Nobel jury’s decision as “a great choice”.

“It shows that multilateral processes and the technical solutions to rid the world of chemical weapons do exist,” said Ole von Uexkull, the foundation’s director, in a statement.

Since the OPCW came into existence 16 years ago, it has destroyed 57,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, the majority of them leftovers from the Cold War held by the United States and Russia.

“It’s the slow steady laying down of bricks over the weeks, months and years, people sitting in control rooms watching this stuff going into the chutes,” OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said recently.

Luhan, speaking before the prize was awarded, described the OPCW’s work as characterised by “persistence” and “without any fanfare.”

“It’s the slow grinding work that we hope over time will be more appreciated,” he said.

The OPCW’s work was the “subject of years and years of patient diplomacy in which we’ve demonstrated that we do diplomacy very, very well. We’ve kept everybody aboard, we keep adding states parties, we’re approaching universality.”

Luhan, the OPCW spokesman, said any reaction to the peace prize would be posted on the organisation’s website, adding it did not want to create the impression that it was focused on anything but its work.

“We’re in the process of trying to achieve something in Syria,” he said.

“If we achieve the objectives of this mission, then there’ll be something to celebrate.”

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UCI opens talks with WADA

The International Cycling Union has opened discussions with the World Anti-Doping Agency to set up an independent investigation into the cycling body’s handling of past drug scandals.

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The UCI was criticised for not doing enough to catch American rider Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles after admitting to doping. His admission followed an investigation by the US Ant-Doping Agency.

New UCI President Brian Cookson, who defeated incumbent Pat McQuaid in an election two weeks ago, based his campaign on restoring trust in the UCI and rebuilding the organisation’s fractious relationship with anti-doping bodies.

“We have started the work of establishing a high level dialogue with WADA to plan how we will proceed with the independent investigation into the UCI’s past,” Cookson said in a statement Friday.

“We have also been making contact with other key stakeholders in this area, including USADA, other national anti-doping organisations and the French Sports Ministry.”

The UCI had been accused of being complicit in Armstrong’s doping.

Cookson also said the UCI has decided to drop a lawsuit filed against Irish journalist Paul Kimmage, a former Tour rider who spent many years reporting on Armstrong and doping issues.

UCI director general Christophe Hubschmid and lawyer Philippe Verbiest, who had both been heavily involved in McQuaid’s administration, have left the organisation, with Antonio Rigozzi now assisting in legal matters, Cookson said.

Cookson also plans to meet new IOC President Thomas Bach and Carlos Nuzman, head of the organising committee for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, in the coming weeks.

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Nobel Peace Prize goes to OPCW

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The 2013 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

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The OPCW, based in the Dutch city of The Hague, is currently helping to oversee the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.

Zara Zaher has the details.

(Click on audio tab to listen to this item)

The winner of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize was announced in Oslo by the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland.

Mr Jagland says the Prize recognises the organisation’s extensive work, in implementing the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

“During World War One, chemical weapons were used to a considerable degree. During World War Two, chemical means were employed in Hitler’s mass exterminations. Chemical weapons have subsequently been put to use on numerous occasions by both states and terrorists. In 1992-93 a convention was drawn up prohibiting also the production and storage of such weapons. It came into force in 1997. Since then the OPCW has, through inspections, destruction and by other means, sought the implementation of the convention. 189 states have acceded to the convention to date.”

The OPCW has 189 member states, sharing the collective goal of preventing chemical weapons from ever again being used.

It aims to continue trying to persuade the small number of countries with chemical weapons to join the Convention, and give them up.

Thorbjorn Jagland says recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the importance of the OPCW.

Daniel Hyslop is from a not-for-profit research organisation, the Institute for Economics and Peace.

He says the OPCW is a surprising, but worthy, Nobel Peace Prize winner.

“Not many people thought that the OPCW would be figured as one of the potential winners. I think the recognition of them is important. I think it’s about protecting the norm that chemical weapons can’t be used in conflict. It’s recognition of the fact that the 300 conflicts that happened in Syria earlier this year was one of the most deadly parts of the war which has claimed over 120,000 people. And I think it’s also recognition of the fact that this organisation has been incredibly successful. In 15 years they’ve managed to essentially remove 78 percent of declared stockpiles of chemical weapons.”

A former United Nations disarmament commissioner, Paul Schute, says it’s good timing to award the Peace Prize to the OPCW.

He told CNN it will help to motivate the organisation as it begins its work to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons.

“In relation to Syria, they haven’t got into stride yet, so this is I think to hype them up and give them additional respect in the world for what will be a difficult task. They have done things, outside Syria. They’ve been an important force on the landscape. They’ve monitored the destruction of declared chemical weapons in a number of countries, and they’re still monitoring Russian and American chemical destruction, which has taken much longer than one had hoped. And they’re doing industrial registration and monitoring to keep a watch out. So they are a benign organisation. It’s good that the world has got the OPCW. But it’s real test is now going to come.”

First awarded in 1901, the Nobel Peace Prize was created by the 19th century Swedish inventor and philanthropist Alfred Nobel.

There were 259 candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2013 – with 50 of these being organizations.

The Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, says it was difficult choosing a winner, but in the end it was unanimous.

“We have to look at the facts, and the facts are have the opportunity now to do away with a whole range, a whole category, of chemical weapons. And this has been one of the most prominent issues, I would say, in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize – namely the need for controlling nuclear weapons, and doing away with weapons of mass destruction like nuclear weapons and chemical weapons. So this is a long line in what we have been doing for years.”

The Nobel Peace award carries prize money of just over a million dollars.

 

 

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Former F1 tester Maria de Villota dies

Former Formula 1 reserve driver Maria de Villota died from natural causes, a source close to the case confirmed after an autopsy was carried out on her body on Friday afternoon.

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The 33-year-old was found dead in a hotel room in Seville on Friday morning.

“The cause of death was natural. We cannot say much more at this stage out of respect to the family,” the source said.

De Villota was in the Andalusian city to take part in a conference organised by the “What Really Matters” foundation promoting human values and was due to launch her book titled “Life is a gift” in Madrid on Monday.

The daughter of former Formula 1 driver Emilio De Villota, she was the first Spanish female to enter the sport when she joined the Marussia team in 2012 as a test driver.

However, just four months later De Villota suffered severe injuries, including the loss of her right eye, in a crash while testing at Duxford Airfield in Cambridgeshire.

“I hope that, without having to go through an accident like mine, you can feel the joy of being alive and enjoy life,” she wrote in the introduction to the book to explain the motivation behind it.

“Maria has left us. She had to go to heaven like all the angels. I give thanks to God for the extra year and a half he left her with us,” read a message from her family posted on De Villota’s Facebook page.

“It is with great sadness that we learned a short time ago of the news that Maria de Villota has passed away,” the Marussia team said in a statement.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Maria’s family and friends at this very difficult time.”

The news has shocked the world of motorsport with tributes to a female pioneer in the sport pouring in.

De Villota had hoped to become just the third woman in history to take part in a Formula One race and Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn, who became the first female team principal in the sport in 2012, hopes she has left a legacy for future female drivers to follow.

“If anybody represented strength and optimism, it was Maria,” she said.

“Her sudden death is a big loss to the motorsport world as she was an important ambassador for relaying important messages to the youth, and particularly girls that aspire to a career in motorsport. Maria was an example of someone who never gave up, she always had a smile on her face and we will dearly miss her.”

Two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso said he was in shock after finding out the news ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka this weekend.

“”Of course, it’s very sad news for the world of motorsport as Maria was loved by everyone. Now, all we can do is pray for her and for her family,” he said.

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Ethno-religious tragedy rebuilds in Iraq

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

In the shadows of Syria’s deadly civil war, a new tragedy is building right next door, in Iraq.

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Actually, it’s an old tragedy threatening to renew itself.

And the picture looks increasingly ominous.

Ron Sutton has the story.

(Click on audio tab above to listen to this item)

Last month in Iraq, about one thousand civilians died in random acts of violence linked to the country’s ethno-religious sectarian conflict.

It was the highest monthly death toll since 2008, in a year already with the highest annual toll since 2008 — the year Australian troops left the country.

And earlier this month, a hundred people died in a single day.

That day unfolded as Iraqi specialist Ben Isakhan, from Melbourne’s Deakin University, was in the country working on a research project.

And while the world’s focus is absorbed in neighbouring Syria’s civil war, Dr Isakhan is one of many seeing deeply worrying signs as the death toll climbs again in Iraq.

“That tells you that we’ve slipped all the way back to 2008. Now it’s really not that much further to go, to put it in crude terms, in terms of just the body count, before we end up in the darkest days of 2006-2007. Is Iraq heading in that direction? Well, it’s certainly very clear that, in the last 12 months — even more than 12 months, more than 18 months now since the US left at the end of 2011 — Iraq has rapidly descended downwards.”

More than 50,000 Iraqis died in largely Sunni-Shi’ite conflict in 2006 and ’07 before a surge in United States military forces took Iraq back from the brink of civil war.

US troops withdrew late in 2011 amid relative calm, as the annual toll settled back to about four thousand each year.

But the neighbouring Syrian conflict that began that year would worsen dramatically, spilling both further Sunni-Shi’ite tension and al-Qaeda-linked fighters across its borders.

Ben Isakhan, who sees a vastly different Iraq from even a year ago, sums up the futility in one particular everyday scene now playing out around the capital Baghdad.

“On odd days, odd-number-plate cars can get through certain checkpoints. And on even days, even-number-plate cars can get through certain checkpoints. Now that might not sound all that complicated, but when you have a massive city of some four million people, three million people, and, you know, these people are trying to go about their day, trying to get to work, trying to get to school, trying to do the grocery shopping, trying to do whatever it is that they need to do, life is just stifled by this — it’s completely crippled, it’s incredibly difficult to move around. The logic of this is, if you prevent half the cars from moving around particular points of the city, then you’re going to reduce the number of cars on the road, which should, in theory, reduce the number of bombs. But I mean, well, firstly, it’s not working, because bombs are going off all the time, as bad as ever. And, secondly, if you were a terrorist, why wouldn’t you just wait till tomorrow?”

The reasons why Iraq could be slipping into yesterday are similarly complicated.

Syria’s breakdown is a significant part, but Iraq’s problems are very much its own, too.

A former governance policy adviser for the postwar transitional government in Iraq, Lydia Khalil, points to a lack of … well, governance.

Now a Melbourne-based international-security analyst, Dr Khalil, too, suggests there is grave danger Iraq could be headed back to the days of 2006 and ’07.

“I’m very concerned about what’s happening in Iraq for a couple of reasons. I think that’s directly a result of the spillover from Syria, but it’s also a result of a number of unresolved issues within the Iraqi governance landscape as well. A lot of that has to do with unresolved feelings of (un)fairness between different minority groups within Iraq, and, also, continued disputes over disputed territories in the region.”

The minority Sunnis held the power under late President Saddam Hussein, but the majority Shi’ites now largely rule the country under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Under his rule, and especially since the US exit, leading Sunni politicians have been targeted politically until much of the Sunni Arab population now feels unrepresented.

At the same time, the Kurdish minority, itself predominantly Sunni, is enjoying autonomy in three northern provinces that are primarily Kurdish.

The al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, able to take advantage of the brewing discontent, has grown in numbers and influence in many parts of the country.

A Canadian study found about half of Iraq’s 18 provinces, particularly the northern Kurdish and some southern Shi’ite provinces, actually are just as safe as Canada.

But it found the other half to be among the most violent places on earth.

Many of those are areas where Kurdish and other interests collide.

Lydia Khalil suggests the US-led coalition’s attempts to create a postwar balance of power between ethnic and religious groups may have actually accented the divides.

“A lot of that was, I think, done with good intention, to keep in mind the sectarian checks and balances within Iraq. But I think, as we’ve seen, that’s kind of created a Lebanon-style sectarian-identity politics, where, you know, Sunnis are expected to have a certain quota of this and Shia, they are the majority, so they’re expected to have a certain quota of that. So that’s a bit troublesome.”

Lydia Khalil says, like so many other places, what are termed sectarian issues are, in truth, issues of power, resources and land.

But the head of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, Samina Yasmeen, says the sectarian split itself is becoming increasingly real, too.

She, too, suggests it was largely brought on from outside, by the US-led coalition.

“I think, once you start a trend where you draw attention to sectarianism, when the state becomes unstable, then different interest groups emerge who have a stake in, in fact, further fomenting that sectarianism. I think what’s happened is, because the American government and the forces talked so much about sectarian differences, with them not being there, that tendency or those trends haven’t disappeared. And then there’s an international language that’s going on which sort of pits the Shias against the Sunnis and the other way around. So those conflicts, I think, we’re going to deal with them, no matter what happens, for the next at least few years, if not longer.”

Professor Yasmeen says there were Sunni-Shi’ite tensions at times before the US-led forces ever arrived.

She points to the early 1980s when the revolution in Shi’ite-majority Iran stirred up fellow Shi’ites in Iraq.

But she says the two groups generally co-existed easily, as evidenced by the fact many Shi’ite families have only now begun to move out of Sunni areas and vice versa.

And she points to changes going on in the region beyond just Iraq.

“I was just telling someone only last week, when I came back from Pakistan, someone actually identified herself as a minority because she is Shia. You wouldn’t hear that language before. We were discussing what’s happening in Pakistan, and she said, ‘Well, you know, we who are a minority …'”

In Iraq, with a federal election due next year, Ben Isakhan suggests a desire to keep Nouri al-Maliki from retaining office may be behind some of the rising violence.

And, he says, that is not driving just one side.

“There’s wide dissatisfaction with the Maliki Government. And whatever one may think of the Maliki Government here, many political factions are using violence as a way to, if you like, undermine him, to demonstrate he’s not in effective control of the country, that he’s not capable of protecting the citizens, whether they be Shia or Sunni or others, from violence and from random acts of terror, and that his work over the last few years has not been successful in improving the conflict. So there are a lot of forces at stake, both Shia and Sunni, who, apart from their ethno-religious motivations, their other motivation is to undermine the Maliki Government and to demonstrate that it’s not as effective as it claims in preventing violence.”

Dr Isakhan tells of a conversation just recently with a Shi’ite man.

Shi’ites were not, typically, supporters of Saddam Hussein.

“This guy said to me, you know, ‘In the former regime, we had schools, we had hospitals, we had roads, we had electricity, we had water, we had working sewerage systems, and we had good public transport and very little problems with pollution and with congestion,’ and so on and so on. ‘But the only thing I couldn’t do was walk out into the street and yell at the top of my lungs, “I hate Saddam.” That was the only thing I was not allowed to do. Now, I can walk out into the street any day I like, and I can say, “I hate Maliki.” But I have no schools, I have no jobs, I have no hospitals, and there’s no working sewerage system, there’s no electricity, there’s often not potable water,’ so on and so on and so on.”